The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and completed their withdrawal in February 1989, just two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Afgantsy are the Soviet veterans of that war, predominantly Russians but drawn from all the countries which then made up the Soviet Union. This compelling book is the history of that war, but more than that it is also the story of the Soviet soldiers who fought in that war. It was a war which for much of its period was denied by the Soviet Union and then as it became impossible to deny became hugely controversial and unpopular within the Soviet Union. The veterans – mostly conscript soldiers with no choice as to their participation became themselves victims of that controversy and unpopularity.
Read this book. It has been written by Rodric Braithwaite a former British Ambassador to Moscow who has clearly developed deep and lasting contacts with the Afghantsy which has enabled him to write a remarkable inside and ‘soldier’s eye’ view of the war. The narrative history is brief and to the point. The richness of the book comes in the detailed descriptions of events as seen unfolding on the ground by those who were participating – at all levels from senior military officers to ordinary conscripts. It is highly readable, rich in the sort of day-to-day detail which stops it from being dry in any way at all, and full of insights not just about Afghanistan but about the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. While it could not be said that the occupation led to the collapse, it can be said that the were closely inter-twined.
The book of course has greatly added poignancy because of our own subsequent entanglement in Afghanistan. It would be naive to believe that the two situations are directly equivalent but some parallels are so close to the surface as to be unmissable.
Although told with a light touch, the story of events leading up to the invasion are thought-provoking. This was far from a strategic move to increase the size of the Soviet empire. Rather it was an action prompted by a spiral of violence inside the country and a sense on the Soviet leadership that ‘something must be done’ and that they were running out of alternatives. It all sounds dreadfully familiar.
On their arrival in the country, the Soviet troops were initially welcomed, as providing some respite from the mounting carnage. But it was not a welcome which lasted long and their occupation soon led to its own cycle of violence. It was a cycle which resulted in some 15,000 Soviet fatalities and some 1-1.5 million Afghani deaths, military and civilian. That cycle of violence and that sort of ratio of deaths seems to be the inevitable consequence of a introducing a highly-sophisticated army of occupation into a less-developed country with entrenched resistance. (For comparison the estimated comparative figures for Vietnam were 58,000 US military fatalities, 1.1 million North Vietnamese combat deaths, 266,000 South Vietnamese combat deaths and anywhere between 0.5 and 2 million civilian deaths).
I am certain that every policy maker and military leader involved in Afghanistan today will have read this book. They are intelligent people working with the best intentions to stabilise a deeply unstable country in a troubled region that has before and will again threaten the West. They will have looked at the parallels and shaken their heads. They will hope to, and probably succeed, avoid the worst excesses of the Soviet occupation. But they must also be reminded that however much the Afghans welcome those sent to help, they welcome their departure even more. And the question really has to be asked is when our troops do eventually withdraw, after all their heroics, best endeavours and good intentions, will they actually have made any sustainable difference?The Russian experience cannot make one optimistic that we shall be able to say yes.